Inspiring Women CEOs: Eileen Fisher

By Ursula Jorch

Hopefully the day will come, and soon, when we no longer have to highlight great women CEOs, and they’ll just become exemplary CEOs, period. Until that day arrives, however, it’s valuable to point out the unique skills and perspectives that women are bringing to the table in terms of leadership in companies that have impact.

Let’s start with one of the masters, Eileen Fisher. As the first in a planned series, I’ll be highlighting the contributions of both the woman and the brand. I hope they inspire you as much as they inspire me.

Eileen Fisher of Eileen Fisher, Inc.

Eileen and her eponymous women’s clothing brand have been practicing values-based business for several decades, since its founding in 1984. A benefit corporation and certified B corp, Eileen Fisher, Inc. has a quadruple bottom line: financial, social, environmental, and employee well-being. Eileen herself has said, “We don’t want sustainability to be our edge. We want it to be universal.”

The company reduces environmental impact with attention to their materials and their supply chain, right back to the farm level. The intention is to take responsibility for the entire life cycle of their clothing. Organic dyes, “responsible fibers” using chlorine-free wool, land and sheep stewardship, and recycled fibers are all low/lower impact approaches they use.

A resale program, Renew, for gently worn Eileen Fisher clothing, and Waste No More, a recycling program for their clothing at the end of its lifespan into one-of-a-kind artwork and home decor, seek to disrupt the consumerism cycle and end waste, taking back over 1 million garments since 2009.

Social impact is also a focus for this financially successful company, with fair trade purchasing, minimum supplier practice standards like living wage, and worldwide monitoring of human rights labor standards.

In terms of employees and governance, Eileen Fisher follows several honored standards for employee ownership and diversity. In 2017, 40.5% of the company was owned by employees via an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). The remainder is owned by Eileen Fisher herself.

A team of six leaders constitute the collaborative CEO group that runs the company. The executive leadership team and board of directors is two-thirds women, with a goal to increase that representation, according to their benefit report, since 84% of their employees are women.

The company doesn’t stop with leadership representation within the company. Women are further supported by initiatives such as Green Eileen, which donates recycled retail profits to support women, girls, and environment, the Women’s Business Grant Program, funding women-owned businesses, and the Activating Leadership Grant, which funds programs that develop leadership qualities in women and girls.

One of the interesting things about Eileen Fisher is that investors have never been part of the equation. Companies at this level (sales of $440 million with 60 branded stores worldwide) often have or have had investor involvement.

This visionary and ground-breaking company and leader have been instrumental in helping guide other companies, through example and intentional leadership. Starting with baby steps to make their clothing less detrimental to the environment to, “recently I realized we’re not moving fast enough: we have to start sprinting, and actually lead the fashion industry to make these changes now”, as Eileen said in an interview.

I can’t think of a better way to wrap up this spotlight than with Eileen’s own words: “Everyone can make a difference. Everyone has to lead at different times. There are so many large and small things that we can all do. I really think it is so much about individuals. And it is amazing how one person can have a real influence.”

Impact doesn’t begin when your company is big, like Eileen’s is now. It begins with a decision early on. Your decision to commit to having impact, to making a contribution both personally and with your business. Once you make that choice, your path just starts to get far more interesting and fulfilling.

About the author

Eileen Fisher and other women entrepreneurs can be valuable role models to help you chart your own path.

Ursula Jorch is a speaker, business coach and consultant who helps entrepreneurs grow a successful business that makes a difference in the world. A 21-year successful entrepreneur herself, Ursula helps you define the difference you want to make in the world and develop strategy and marketing so you have ever-expanding impact.

Find Ursula on her podcast, Work Alchemy: The Impact Interviews where she interviews impactful entrepreneurs and leaders like Seth Godin and Marianne Williamson, and at WorkAlchemy.com for free resources for you and your business.

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